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Canadian author Kathy Stinson and illustrator Lauren Soloy’s A Tulip in Winter is a vibrant biography of folk artist Maud Lewis from two creators familiar with the Nova Scotian landscape that Lewis called home. 

Although Lewis had a happy childhood, she was also “teased . . . for how she looked, her crooked walk, and how small she was.” Lewis’ hands grew stiff from a condition her doctors could not explain, revealed in the book’s back matter to be severe rheumatoid arthritis. The condition prevented her from playing the piano, so her mother gave her a paintbrush and launched Lewis’ life in art: “Red on white made its own kind of music,” the girl eagerly discovered. 

A Tulip in Winter touches on the many challenges in Lewis’ life: She struggled to find employment, and after her parents’ deaths, she moved in with her aunt, who discouraged her niece’s art. Eventually, Lewis moved into a small, plain house owned by a fish peddler named Everett and soon filled the house with color, painting floral and other natural motifs on the stairs, walls, tea canisters, dustpans and more. “Everett was strong in body. Maud was strong in spirit. They got along the way certain colours do,” Stinson writes. The book’s final spread acknowledges the fame Lewis achieved after her death: “So small was her house that it is now nestled inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.” 

Stinson emphasizes that the foundation of Lewis’ distinctive art was her ability to notice things, even when she was unable to leave her home. Her admiration and respect for Lewis permeate every page, while Soloy’s thick-lined, brightly colored illustrations capture the essence of Lewis’ joyous art. Full-bleed spreads bring Lewis’ childhood to life with period details such as horse-drawn carriages and historical clothing, and many spreads are overlaid in white-lined drawings of the things Lewis observes in nature, including flowers, birds, trees, ocean waves and more. The book’s seamless blend of text and art provides a superb introduction to the work of a woman who found “beauty in the everyday.” 

This vibrant biography of folk artist Maud Lewis is a superb introduction to the work of a woman who found “beauty in the everyday.”
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Acclaimed children’s author Aida Salazar tells the story of Jovita Valdovinos, a revolutionary figure to whom she is distantly related and who is sometimes described as “Mexico’s Joan of Arc,” in Jovita Wore Pants. Molly Mendoza’s dazzling art enhances this thrilling picture book biography, which transports readers to early 20th-century Mexico as Valdovinos transforms from an adventurous girl to a daring, clever leader. 

The book opens as young Valdovinos, wearing a dress and braids, gazes out the window and dreams of wearing pants so she can join her older brothers’ outdoor fun. Soon, she begins to do just this, sneaking out of the house and tucking her skirts into her bloomers. Salazar’s exquisite prose shows how these clandestine escapades enriched and strengthened Valdovinos: “Jovita discovered the way the leaves rustle when rain is coming, where healing plants grow, the shape of every cave, and what might lurk inside.” 

Valdovinos later uses these childhood lessons as she follows in her father’s and brothers’ footsteps and joins the Catholic Cristero forces in their rebellion against the secular Federales. After Federales kill her father and brothers, the grief-stricken Valdovinos dons pants, cuts her hair, calls herself “Juan” and continues the crusade her family members gave their lives for. The book deftly captures Valdovinos’ dynamic metamorphosis into a warrior in a series of stunning spreads. We see her engulfed in a torrent of tears after learning of her family’s brutal deaths, watch her slash through her braids with a large knife and witness the avenging heroine on horseback as she commands a company of 80 soldiers. 

Mendoza’s illustrations are a whirlwind of color and energy. Her curved, fluid lines (the bend of a river, the rise of a hillside, the wind-whipped tail of a rambunctious stallion) create a sense of action and excitement. Every inch of these spreads is filled with motion as we see, for instance, 15-year-old Valdovinos leaping over a brick wall “with the stealth of a fox” to escape government soldiers. Mendoza brilliantly uses color to convey mood, from the predominantly turquoise, yellow and orange scenes of Valdovinos’ carefree childhood, to the brooding purples, blues and dark reds of the tumultuous revolution.

A five-page essay, accompanied by photos, adds informative details about Valdovinos’ long life after her peaceful surrender to the Mexican government. With frank mentions of the realities of war, including violence, torture and death, Jovita Wore Pants is best suited for elementary-age readers who will appreciate this stirring biography of a woman “who defiantly turned her country’s cultural patriarchy on its head.”  

This stirring biography captures the daring life of “Mexico’s Joan of Arc,” a revolutionary woman who defied expectations and fought for her beliefs.
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Author-illustrator Charnelle Pinkney Barlow’s Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar: The Musical Story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Woman Who Invented Rock and Roll is a beautifully written and impressively illustrated picture book that’s as jubilant as Tharpe’s music and will surely inspire readers to seek out her joyful recordings.

The book focuses on Tharpe’s childhood, when the woman who would one day be called the Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll was a girl with a passion and talent for telling stories through music. Tharpe’s first guitar was a gift from her mother, and she found musical inspiration all over her hometown of Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Pinkney Barlow’s literary prowess is on full display as her prose sings out with wonderful rhythm and imagery. As Tharpe becomes a skilled guitar player, “her fingers [hop] around like corn in a kettle,” and when Tharpe plays in church for the first time, her music is “like summer rain washing the dust off a new day.” 

It’s difficult to convey the intricate charm of Pinkney Barlow’s gleeful cut-paper artwork. Textured and patterned papers create movement and depth, while colorful musical notations and bits of sheet music are incorporated throughout. Perhaps most impressive is the sense of place achieved by both text and art: Readers will truly feel as though they’ve visited Cotton Plant and met many of its animated, expressive denizens, from Pastor Murray, “mender of souls and mender of guitars,” whose shirt is made from blue-lined notebook paper, to Miss Mable, who compliments Tharpe’s “fast finger pickin’” as she hangs her laundry out to dry. 

Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar is a worthy tribute not only to Tharpe’s proud, triumphant sound but also to Pinkney Barlow’s grandfather, the late Caldecott Medal-winning author-illustrator Jerry Pinkney, to whom the book is dedicated. In her author’s note, Pinkney Barlow discusses the barriers Tharpe faced as a female guitarist in a male-dominated industry, as a gospel musician who played in decidedly secular venues and as a Black musician in a segregated country. The note also discusses Tharpe’s legacy and long-overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

To turn on a radio today is to hear Tharpe’s influence. Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar honors a woman whose sound lives on in our musical DNA.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe became known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll, and this picture book about her childhood is as jubilant as her music.
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Pakistani American author Reem Faruqi tells the fascinating story of her late grandmother’s life in Milloo’s Mind: The Story of Maryam Faruqi, Trailblazer for Women’s Education

Faruqi, who was born in 1920 in Poona, India, was given the nickname “Milloo” by her father. Milloo loved learning from an early age: “When she read, her thoughts danced, her mind breathed, and her heart hummed.” Although girls were not expected to continue their education past the fifth grade, Milloo fought for her right to learn and, eventually, for the rights of others as well. When she grew up, she founded schools in Pakistan that have educated thousands of children. 

Faruqi’s lively prose brings her grandmother’s inspiring story to life with lyrical flair, transforming, for example, Milloo’s walk to school into a celebration: “Milloo snaked past the sabzi wala, cha-chaed past the chai wala, danced through the dusty alleys, all the way to school.” (A glossary provides explanations of vocabulary that may be unfamiliar.) 

Iranian illustrator Hoda Hadadi’s paper-collage spreads are a symphony of color, texture and depth. Hadadi embues objects as simple as the curtains in Milloo’s home and classroom with diaphanous layering and intricate patterns, and the same is true of the vibrant clothing worn by many characters. 

After Milloo married and was expected to take over household duties, Faruqi explains that Milloo found herself ill-suited for a domestic life: “When Milloo cooked, her head stewed, and when she sewed, her mind got tangled.” Although this is a challenging point in Milloo’s life, Hadadi still fills her illustration with engaging colors, from the bright pinks and oranges of Milloo’s clothes to her rainbow of thread spools, as well as a multicolored clothesline that stretches across the spread. 

The book ends with a lovely full-circle moment as Faruqi notes how today, students in the schools opened by her grandmother stay up at night reading, just like Milloo. “Their thoughts danced, their minds breathed, and their hearts hummed,” she writes. Bursting with energy, Milloo’s Mind is a joyful ode to education and empowerment.

This lively picture book about Maryam Faruqi, who founded schools in Pakistan, is a colorful and joyful ode to education and empowerment.

To Boldly Go opens in the living room of a young Black girl and her family. It’s “TV night,” and they’re preparing to watch a “real treat”: actor Nichelle Nichols in the role of Lieutenant Uhura on “Star Trek.” Author Angela Dalton uses this semi-autobiographical framing device to set up her picture book biography of the trailblazing Black actor.

Following Nichols through a childhood filled with art and music, to her early career in dance, to her time in Hollywood, Dalton effectively communicates how groundbreaking Nichols’ “Star Trek” character was. During an era “when Black actresses played servants on television” and real-life astronauts were exclusively white men, Lieutenant Uhura was a strong, intelligent Black woman, a communications officer aboard the USS Enterprise and a leader among her fellow officers. Black viewers “burst with pride seeing someone who looked like us standing as an equal to make the future better for everyone,” Dalton writes.

Even so, Nichols’ role on “Star Trek” did not insulate her from discrimination, and Dalton conveys how racist treatment, including harassment on the studio lot and reduced screen time, led Nichols to decide to leave the show—until she was approached by a very special fan who convinced her of the positive impact that she and Uhura were having on the world.

Illustrator Lauren Semmer’s vibrant artwork showcases Nichols’ bold sense of style, including her signature earrings. Semmer cleverly incorporates hues reminiscent of the “Star Trek” color palette to highlight Nichols’ influence on the world around her. This is particularly effective in the final spreads, which depict a group of young Black girls dancing, singing, stargazing and watching “Star Trek” in outfits that recall the Enterprise’s multicolor uniforms.

The book’s back matter includes an author’s note in which Dalton explains the mark Nichols left on her and her parents, as well as information about a campaign Nichols led on behalf of NASA to recruit “women and minoritized astronaut candidates.” The effort resulted in a record number of applicants. 

Dalton and Semmer’s book is an inspiring read not only for “Star Trek” fans but also for any reader who longs to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

This biography of the trailblazing actor who played Lieutenant Uhura on “Star Trek” will inspire readers who long to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Two of America’s most distinguished figures in children’s literature combine their formidable talents to create a moving biography of the great Maya Angelou. In Maya’s Song, Newbery Honor author Renée Watson (Piecing Me Together) chronicles the pivotal milestones and emotional touchstones of Angelou’s extraordinary life in a series of lyrical free verse poems, lavishly illustrated with four-time Caldecott Honor recipient Bryan Collier’s vibrant watercolor and collage artwork. The result, like Angelou herself, is an American treasure.

In addition to plays, essays and poetry, Angelou penned seven autobiographical works, and it would be a challenge for any biographer to encompass all the details of her complex, eventful life. Watson handles this challenge easily in a 48-page picture book format.

Watson’s beautiful, heartfelt poems provide young readers with both historical and emotional context, while a concluding timeline provides factual highlights. In 1993, Angelou became the first woman and first Black person to present an original poem at a presidential inauguration. She achieved another first in 2022, when her likeness became the first portrait of a Black woman to be featured on the U.S. quarter.

Watson’s exquisite poems are enhanced by Collier’s evocative art. In his illustrator’s note, Collier (All Because You Matter) invites readers to examine the way he uses color, especially blue, to illuminate Angelou’s tumultuous childhood, which included a devastating sexual assault by her mother’s boyfriend. The trauma she experienced and the man’s subsequent murder left Angelou mute for five years. It’s impossible to tell Angelou’s life story without this event. Watson does so with sensitivity, telling readers that “When Maya was seven years old, / her mother’s boyfriend / hurt her body, hurt her soul,” placing the focus on Angelou’s recovery through literature, poetry and the love of her family, especially her grandmother and brother.

Angelou was many things: a poet, a dancer, a singer, a world traveler, an award-winning author and a civil rights activist who counted figures such as James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. as friends. Most of all, she was an inspiration. In her author’s note, Watson describes being moved to tears the first time she heard Angelou speak. “I have held Maya Angelou’s words close to me my whole life,” she writes. “Her words guide me, heal me, inspire me.” Young readers who meet Angelou through Maya’s Song will surely look at her face on the U.S. quarter with a better understanding of the remarkable woman who earned such a tribute.

Through lyrical poems and lavish watercolor and collage artwork, Renée Watson and Bryan Collier create a moving biography of the remarkable Maya Angelou.

The life of a 19th-century poet, painter and gardener is vividly captured in Celia Planted a Garden: The Story of Celia Thaxter and Her Island Garden, a lovingly written and illustrated nonfiction picture book. It’s a fruitful collaboration by award-winning writers Phyllis Root and Gary D. Schmidt, with colorful, engaging illustrations by Melissa Sweet.

As a young child, Celia Thaxter (née Laighton) moved with her family from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to White Island, part of the Isle of Shoals archipelago off the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine, where her father became the island’s lighthouse keeper. In 1847, when Thaxter was 12, her father built a large hotel on nearby Appledore Island. Thaxter worked in the hotel and planted a garden on its grounds.

The hotel attracted summer visitors, including well-known artists and writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thaxter blossomed as her relationships with these creative figures opened up her world. Eventually, they encouraged Thaxter to write stories and poems about her life on the island and helped her find publication.

Thaxter moved to Watertown, Massachusetts, after she married, but she continued to spend summers on Appledore Island. During the winter months, she wrote and painted greeting cards and china pitchers, bowls and plates. Today, Thaxter is best known for her 1894 book, An Island Garden, illustrated by the American impressionist painter Childe Hassam, and for her garden on Appledore, which was re-created and restored in 1977.

Root and Schmidt’s accessible text focuses on Thaxter’s lifelong love of nature. Sweet incorporates hand-lettered quotations from Thaxter’s own writing, bringing her poetic voice into many of the book’s gorgeous spreads: “The very act of planting a seed has in it to me something beautiful.” Although Celia Planted a Garden contains substantial back matter, including a biographical note, a timeline of Thaxter’s life and an annotated bibliography, specific citations for Thaxter’s quotations aren’t include, which is a notable omission considering their prominence in the book.

Much like Barbara Cooney’s beloved Miss Rumphius, Celia Planted a Garden evokes the magic of summers in Maine and the joy of tending flowers. And like that classic picture book, Celia Planted a Garden is sure to inspire a new generation of young gardeners everywhere.

This picture book biography of 19th-century poet, painter and gardener Celia Thaxter evokes the magic of summers in Maine and the joy of tending flowers.
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There’s an adage that says a rising tide lifts all boats. These three picture books introduce women who improved not only the lives of those around them but also the lives of generations to come.

One Wish by M.O. Yuksel and Mariam Quraishi

One Wish

Fatima al-Fihri was born around 800 A.D. in what is now Tunisia, but her spirit leaps across the centuries and jumps off the page from the very first sentence of M.O. Yuksel’s lyrical recounting of her life. “Fatima craved knowledge like desert flowers crave rain,” she writes.

As readers will learn in One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University, al-Fihri was tutored at home, since only boys attended school. That didn’t stop al-Fihri from dreaming of creating a school where everyone was welcome. “She stood tall, determined, and strong, carrying her wish inside her.” This sentiment captures al-Fihri’s drive and becomes the book’s refrain. Drawing on a scant historical record, Yuksel crafts a fully realized portrait of the woman credited with founding the University of al-Qarawiyyin, one of the oldest continuously operating institutions of higher education in the world.

Mariam Quraishi’s stellar illustrations evoke al-Fihri’s vibrant world, from the lively, loud souq filled with vendors, shoppers and workers to the sweltering sun that shines down on the builders as they turn al-Fihri’s dream into a reality. Greens, purples, reds and yellows pop against a sandy-colored desert background. A dark blue night sky is particularly striking on a spread in which war forces young al-Fihri and her family to flee Tunisia for the safety of Morocco. Years later, as a now-grown al-Fihri hunches over architectural plans and carefully chooses mosaic tiles, Quraishi frames the scene from overhead, an unusual but effective choice.

Yuksel skillfully portrays the role that al-Fihri’s Muslim faith, with its value of charity, played in shaping her dream. “Fatima knew the best way to help her community was to build a school where students, especially the poor and the refugees, could live and study for free.” The book’s back matter includes a detailed timeline of notable events in the history of al-Qarawiyyin University as well as a discussion of the school’s ongoing mission, all of which offer fodder for lively conversations about education through the centuries. 

One Wish is an eye-opening account about a little-known woman’s amazing wish for education for all.

Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight by Jen Bryant and Toshiki Nakamura

Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight

In 2002, a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress renamed Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, a law that prohibits federally funded educational organization from discriminating on the basis of sex. Title IX is now officially known as the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. 

Jen Bryant and Toshiki Nakamura exuberantly bring the story of Mink and her many accomplishments to life in Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight: Patsy Takemoto Mink and the Fight for Title IX. After becoming the first woman of color elected to Congress, Mink co-sponsored a bill that would require schools to treat men and women equally. 

Bryant excels at giving a sense of the broad sweep of history that Mink witnessed throughout her life. She grew up in Hawaii amid the Great Depression, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the campaign for Hawaii to achieve statehood and more. She also faced numerous obstacles, including frequent discrimination because of her gender and her Japanese heritage. 

Bryant roots Mink’s determination in two lessons Mink learned as a child: one based on the Japanese proverb that serves as the book’s title and one derived from the tradition of the Daruma doll. Nakamura’s energetic illustrations show young Mink learning to paint one of the Daruma doll’s eyes to signify setting a new goal, then painting the other eye after achieving her goal. Nakamura, who has worked for Netflix Animation and DreamWorks TV, has a lively and approachable style, whether he’s portraying Mink frolicking through fields of sugarcane, joining her family as they listen to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside radio chats or rallying support for civil rights as she forcefully addresses the 1960 Democratic National Convention. 

Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight transforms Mink’s life of political achievement into a rousing quest for justice and equality. Her story of nonstop perseverance will resonate with young readers and inspire them to continue working to reach their own goals. 

Sanctuary by Christine McDonnell and Victoria Tentler-Krylov

★ Sanctuary

“Who decides who gets the condo and who gets the cardboard box?” is a question Kip Tiernan asked the world. Sanctuary: Kip Tiernan and Rosie’s Place, the Nation’s First Shelter for Women is the informative story of Tiernan’s life as an advocate for people experiencing homelessness. 

Author Christine McDonnell, who has taught English to immigrants at Rosie’s Place, adeptly conveys the narrative arc of Tiernan’s life. She explains how Tiernan was raised during the Great Depression by her grandmother, who always shared food with anyone who knocked on her door and even donated her son’s shoes to a man who needed them. “In her grandmother’s kitchen, Kip learned to be generous and to care about others,” McDonnell writes.

As an adult in the late 1960s, Tiernan sold her advertising business and began working at Warwick House, a charitable organization. In 1974, she opened Rosie’s Place in Boston after seeing women disguise themselves as men to try to obtain food and temporary housing, since shelters didn’t accept women. 

Victoria Tentler-Krylov’s atmospheric illustrations draw readers into Tiernan’s surroundings with immediacy and emotion. Shades of gray dominate early scenes of hungry people huddling in the snow, thankfully breathing in the steam from bowls of Tiernan’s grandmother’s soup. Tiernan’s pale pink dress and attentive gaze provides a contrast to the dreariness and adds a splash of color and hope.

Readers who linger over Tentler-Krylov’s attention to detail will be richly rewarded. Granny’s old-fashioned kitchen brims with all sorts of gadgets, and the Depression-era fashions parading down the sidewalks outside her house are a visual feast. As Tiernan’s dedication to uplifting the lives of others grows, so does the amount of color within the book’s spreads, whether it’s through orange carrots and green vegetables on a nourishing plate or the bright stripes and floral prints worn by the women at Rosie’s Place. 

Extensive back matter rounds out the book. McDonnell offers a brief but focused exploration of past and present causes of homelessness and a number of inspiring quotations from Tiernan herself, some of which are included on a memorial to Tiernan unveiled in Boston’s Copley Square in 2018. Sanctuary would sit comfortably on a shelf alongside titles such as Diane O’Neill and Brizida Magro’s Saturday at the Food Pantry and Jillian Tamaki’s Our Little Kitchen

This thoughtful book conveys a powerful, important message: “When you listen to others, you show respect; you learn who they are and what they need.” 

In these three picture books, meet women who sought to lift others up and transformed their dreams into lasting change.
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Young readers who love to paint, sing or write—or just enjoy reading about the fascinating lives of creative people—will find plenty of inspiration in these three biographical books about Black women who made their marks in the fields of visual arts, music and literature.

Ablaze With Color

Author Jeanne Walker Harvey was inspired to write the picture book biography Ablaze With Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas after learning that the Obamas were going to display Thomas’ painting “Resurrection” in the White House. The first work of art by a Black woman to receive this honor, the painting was given a prominent place in the mansion’s Old Family Dining Room.

Harvey traces Thomas’ early life as a creative, inquisitive child in 1890s Georgia, where her parents hosted salons for intellectuals to make up for the lack of vibrant educational possibilities in the segregated South. Later, Thomas’ family moved north to find greater opportunities for their daughter, and Thomas began a long career as an art educator in Washington, D.C.

Remarkably, Thomas didn’t pick up a paintbrush and begin focusing on her own art until she was around 70 years old. Her dynamic paintings, many inspired by space exploration and the solar system, were quickly celebrated and selected for exhibitions at the Whitney Museum in New York City and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

As the book’s title suggests, Harvey’s text celebrates Thomas’ lifelong love of color, and the book’s illustrations by Loveis Wise reinforce that theme. Every page is full of rich shades of gold, green, red and other saturated hues. Some of the illustrations envision scenes from Thomas’ life, while others pay homage to Thomas’ own artistic style and inspirations.

Ablaze With Color will encourage readers to learn more about Thomas’ amazing works of art. The book’s back matter includes a timeline that juxtaposes significant events in Thomas’ life against notable developments in American history. A list of museums with online and in-person exhibits of Thomas’ work will make it easy for readers to see more of her paintings for themselves.

Sing, Aretha, Sing!

Author Hanif Abdurraqib is best known as an award-winning poet and cultural critic thanks to his writing for adults, but in Sing, Aretha, Sing! Aretha Franklin, “Respect,” and the Civil Rights Movement, he turns his attention to a picture book biography of one of the most celebrated voices of the 20th century: Aretha Franklin.

Abdurraqib begins by discussing Franklin’s roots and the time she spent singing gospel in her father’s church. He devotes most of the book, however, to tracing Franklin’s connections to politics. She joined Martin Luther King Jr. on a civil rights campaign tour, and her song “Respect” was widely adopted as an anthem by the civil rights and women’s movements. Readers who are only familiar with the song from the radio or at karaoke nights might be surprised to learn about how the song galvanized civil rights marchers even as the struggle for Black rights grew increasingly dangerous: “Sometimes the right words and the right sound could open a window and let a small bit of freedom through.”

Ashley Evans’ digital artwork depicts key moments from both Franklin’s life and the history of the civil rights movement with bright colors and simple lines. She also illustrates more contemporary scenes, such as a Black Lives Matter march and a young Black musician at a keyboard, to demonstrate how Franklin’s influence continues to inspire present-day artists and activists.

While young readers might only be familiar with Franklin through her most famous songs, Sing, Aretha, Sing! positions her as a pivotal figure in American popular music, one whose political and cultural influence goes far beyond her familiar hits.

Star Child

An inventive biography of the influential science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler is intended for older readers but touches many of the same themes as Harvey’s and Abdurraquib’s books.

Author Ibi Zoboi focuses primarily on Butler’s early life. She describes Butler’s childhood during the 1950s and her initial creative pursuits, and traces intersections between Butler’s experiences and broader historical events and political and cultural issues of the time, from the Cold War and the space race to the beginnings of the civil rights movement. Zoboi also explores the obstacles Butler faced as she grew up and started writing. Butler contended with structural racism and grappled with a literary and educational establishment that didn’t take Black women’s writing seriously, particularly the kind of science fiction and fantasy literature that Butler was creating.

Zoboi, who is best known for her award-winning young adult novel American Street, alternates straightforward biographical narration with sections written in verse that utilize a variety of poetic devices to delve deeper into the factors that shaped Butler’s life and work. The book also includes numerous archival photographs and documents as well as quotations from Butler’s writing and interviews.

Zoboi movingly highlights the importance of empathy in Butler’s work and her role as a mentor and source of inspiration for countless other Black creatives—including Zoboi herself. The book’s final chapter describes Zoboi’s interactions with Butler over the years, from a book signing in Brooklyn, New York, to time spent as her student at the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in Seattle, Washington. This personal connection makes Star Child even more compelling. Although readers of this biography might be a little too young to read Butler’s work for themselves just yet, Zoboi ensures that they won’t forget her name.

Three books about Black women who left their mark on the arts offer plenty of inspiration for young creative visionaries.
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Book lovers know that stories often hold the seeds of change. These three picture book biographies introduce women whose dreams were too big and bold to be kept to themselves.

Pura’s Cuentos

Pura's Cuentos by Annette Bay Pimentel book coverAs a child in Puerto Rico, Pura Belpré learns Puerto Rican folktales from her grandmother. When Belpré immigrates to New York City, she takes her abuela’s stories with her. In busy, bustling Harlem, Belpré loves her job at a library. But when she decides to share the stories she learned as a child—stories that have not been published and therefore are not approved by the library—she begins a journey that will change storytelling forever. Pura’s Cuentos: How Pura Belpré Reshaped Libraries With Her Stories is an enchanting look at a woman who left an indelible mark on children’s literature.

Author Annette Bay Pimentel’s narration is warm, personal and full of the literary flourishes that denote a good storyteller. Magaly Morales’ upbeat illustrations use delightfully off-kilter perspectives to convey a sense of motion. Belpré’s life and the stories she tells collide in a colorful cacophony. Beloved creatures from folktales pop into many scenes. Vines and Spanish dialogue twine their way across spreads as barriers between real life and fiction fall away. Pura’s Cuentos is beautiful, joyful fun.

An author’s note, detailed source notes and a bibliography add significant depth, expanding on Belpré’s legacy of bilingual storytimes as well as her work as a writer and translator, which opened the worlds of libraries and reading to American children from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. Pura’s Cuentos will inspire readers to learn more about Belpré and the many recipients of the Pura Belpré Award, which honors Latinx authors and illustrators whose children’s books portray, affirm and celebrate the Latinx cultural experience. It’s clear that Belpré’s legacy will continue to resonate in children’s literature for generations to come.

Child of the Flower-Song People

Child of the Flower-Song People by Gloria Amescua book coverLike Belpré, Luz Jiménez was a storyteller, but she was also an artists’ model, teacher and advocate for the Nahua, the native people of Mexico. Born in 1897, Jiménez learned the Nahua language, traditions and stories and longed to share them with the world. Written by Gloria Amescua and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh, Child of the Flower-Song People is a reverential portrait of a woman who never lost sight of her dreams.

Amescua’s words are heavy with history and pride. She maintains a wonderful rhythm, employing repetition and other literary techniques. Vivid descriptions, such as “stars sprinkling the hammock of sky,” fill the text with the richness of Jiménez’s life. The Nahuatl word Xochicuicatl means “poetry” but translates as “flower-song,” and Amescua uses the extended metaphor of a flower inside Jiménez’s heart as a symbol for her hopes and stories.

In a beautiful reflection of this symbol, Tonatiuh includes bright blossoms on many spreads. Lively magenta flowers dot the book’s opening pages as Jiménez first learns the stories and legends of her people. A small vase of flowers sits in the classroom where Jiménez longs to learn to read. When she shares her stories, her words take shape and become flowers that float through the air and plant themselves at the feet of her students. In a clever and respectful tribute, Tonatiuh, a Pura Belpré Award winner himself, based several of his illustrations on works of art by Diego Rivera and other artists for whom Jiménez modeled.

Ostensibly a biography of Luz Jiménez, Child of the Flower-Song People beautifully portrays the spirit and culture of the Nahua people.


Nina by Traci N. Todd book coverSome storytellers use words to entertain listeners and readers, while others share their tales in song. Nina: A Story of Nina Simone gracefully brings the life of one such legendary musician into readers’ hearts.

Nina Simone is born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1930s North Carolina, where her musical talent is encouraged by her father, honed in the church where her mother is a minister and nurtured by her piano teacher. When she begins to play her music in clubs in Atlantic City, New Jersey, she adopts the name Nina Simone so that her minister mother won’t find out. From there, we follow Simone to her Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 and finally to her involvement in the American civil rights movement.

Traci N. Todd’s straightforward narration is honest and candid, occasionally punctuated by poetic lines, as when Simone enjoys the way Bach’s music “started softly, then tumbled to thunder, like Mama’s preaching.” A lengthy afterword takes readers deeper into Simone’s work during the civil rights movement and highlights the power her music still holds today.

Fans of Caldecott Honor illustrator Christian Robinson (Last Stop on Market Street, The Bench) will immediately recognize the bold, distinct shapes that are his hallmark. Robinson outdoes himself here. In two illustrations, he imposes iconic images from the civil rights movement—the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and the March on Washington in 1963—inside the shape of Simone’s grand piano as she plays. When Simone’s music becomes “a raging storm of song,” Robinson’s art erupts with paper-collage flames that surround her and her band.

In Nina’s final spread, Robinson depicts Simone on stage, bowing to her audience, perhaps reflecting on the strength, hope and revolution she conveyed in her music. It’s a moment that gives readers space to contemplate the tremendous gift Simone left behind and the hope she offered for the future.

Book lovers know that stories often hold the seeds of change. These three picture book biographies introduce women whose dreams were too big and bold to be kept to themselves.

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The life of Emily Dickinson is in good hands with picture book biographer Jennifer Berne (On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein).

On Wings of Words is a reverent tribute to Dickinson’s singular contributions to the world of poetry. Although it begins with her birth and ends with her death, it also describes the discovery, made by her sister after her death, that Dickinson left behind hundreds of poems. “Today almost every library, every bookstore, every school in every city, state, and country has Emily’s poems,” Berne writes.

Writing in a format that resembles Dickinson’s verse (including the occasional use of dashes), Berne even incorporates a few excerpts from her poetry. She avoids sentimentalizing or pathologizing Dickinson’s personality and work. Employing sensory prose and conveying a sense of wonder for her subject, Berne emphasizes Dickinson’s love of nature and literature and, later, her earnest search for answers to life’s sorrows.

Becca Stadtlander’s detailed, folk art-style illustrations capture Dickinson’s world and bring shape to the metaphors Berne employs to signify Dickinson’s growth as a poet. Many butterflies, as well as other creatures in flight, flutter across these pages, emphasizing how her poems flew “on the wings of Emily’s words.” The backmatter includes an explanation of how Berne defines poetry; a note on how to read, write and share poetry; and a refreshing admission that “no one fully understands or gets everything out of Emily’s poems on the first reading.”

The life of Emily Dickinson is in good hands with picture book biographer Jennifer Berne (On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein). On Wings of Words is a reverent tribute to Dickinson’s singular contributions to the world of poetry. Although it begins with her birth and ends with her death, it also […]

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